August 16, 2004

Unisys suddenly loves Linux: Should Linux users return that love?

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Unisys has long been the main booster -- possibly the only one besides Microsoft -- of Windows as a mainframe operating system. Now Unisys says it loves Linux -- but still claims to be a staunch Microsoft partner -- and it seems like most of its contributions to the Linux kernel are only useful to Unisys customers. And then there's the specter of the Unisys GIF patents (now expired), and how the company used them as weapons against free and open source software projects only a few years ago. In light of all this, should we welcome Unisys as a "member of the Linux community" with open arms, or maintain a skeptical distance until the company proves that it has truly seen the open source light?Last week I spoke by phone with Anthony Gold, Unisys vice president of engineering for ES7000 server products. It was a PR-monitored, tightly-controlled conversation. When I asked about how Unisys planned to make amends for its use of GIF patents against open source projects (and companies that used online GIF tools, including OSTG predecessor, the only reply I got was "No comment." When I asked a few minutes later why Linux and open source developers should trust Unisys after the GIF nastiness, he said, "I can't comment on past activities. I can only talk about where we're going."

Fine. We're all supposed to forget about past Unisys hostilities toward free software -- and toward Unix. We get the message. We won't mention the last Unisys attempt to sell Linux servers, either. After the sidesteps about GIF patents, I didn't even bother to ask Gold about the previous Unisys attempt to crack the Linux marketplace, which involved a partnership with SCO -- just before SCO stopped selling its Linux products and shifted its legal attack on Linux into high gear.

Unisys contributions to Linux

Gold told me Unisys now has a mainframe Linux team made up of "about 50 people." They are primarily working on dynamic partitioning (allowing different processors or groups of processors to work across multiple partitions at the same time) for Linux, a feature of the 2.6 kernel (contributed by Unisys, according to Gold) that helps make use of several Unisys ES7000 proprietary hardware features. But these contributions are not necessarily valuable unless you happen to have a Unisys ES7000 handy. Gold said these kernel additions work best when used in conjunction with "proprietary extensions" from Unisys.

At least in its latest Linux incarnation, Unisys is working with Novell and Red Hat, a pair of Linux vendors that probably won't sue customers and business partners who desert them for competitors. And Gold told me that on the patent-war front, as it now relates to Linux in Unisys-land, "Our plans are to release the code, not to use any strong-arm tactics."

Perhaps Unisys is smartening up. Gold told me Unisys is "looking at various open source projects to participate in, OSDL being one of them." A "Unisys joins OSDL" announcement might help dispel doubts about Unisys's willingness to make open source contributions. And there is apparently no worry in the Unisys ranks about Microsoft getting testy about Unisys consorting with the (Linux) enemy. Gold said, when asked about this, that the Unisys move toward Linux "hasn't hindered our relationship with Microsoft at all."

There seems to be a tentative feel to all this, including the way Unisys is releasing code. Gold said the company is releasing some components "that make sense to release to the open source community." However, this does not include what Gold described as "our own value-add software."

Why Unisys is 'embracing' Linux

Gold claimed he didn't have sales figures handy for the ES7000 product line. I have heard estimates from people who follow the mainframe market ranging from "a few hundred" to "maybe 1000." This is not a sterling success for a heavily-marketed enterprise hardware product that's been out since 2000. The fact that it has been a Windows-only system until recently may be part of the reason the ES7000 has sold so poorly. As Gold said in another context, "It's hard to know how many deals we didn't get to bid on without Linux."

He also said, "What we see is a tremendous amount of activity in the public space. The public sector is a hot area where we see a lot of activity around Linux." And, he said, there are many applications vendors "that want to move into the Linux space."

He also told me we all should buy our Intel-based mainframes from Unisys instead of from Sun, IBM, or HP because only Unisys has no Unix to protect. The gist of his pitch was that when the "big three" mainframers get into your office by promising Linux on x86 as a low-cost HPC (High Performance Computing) solution, they are going to put lots of energy into "upselling" you from Linux and low-cost x86 hardware to their proprietary Unixes and expensive RISC hardware, neither of which Unisys will try to offer you -- because Unisys has neither a Unix operating sytem nor RISC hardware available.

One university sysadmin I know, when told about this aspect of the Unisys ES7000 sales pitch, pointed out that buying Linux on Unisys hardware didn't save you from the biggest problem attached to buying enterprise-level systems from any top-tier hardware company: Vendor lock-in.

"It's still a proprietary hardware platform, right?" he said in an IRC conversation, "so what's the real difference? You're paying for an OS either way. The lock-in is in the hardware."

Not only that, the best way to lower enterprise-level server TCO and get away from those pesky Unix problems isn't Linux, but Windows 2003. I know this because I have been to the Unisys Web site, which apparently exists in a world where there is no such thing as Linux -- or at least one where Linux isn't mentioned in polite company. According to this site, the best way to move away from Unix is to embrace Windows 2003. In fact, one page on that site specifically says, "Unisys is focused solely on enabling you to standardize your data center on Windows® â-both end-to-end or one application at a time."

(Here's the Google cache version of that page in case Unisys decides to take it down; now that the company is selling Linux servers, the information on it is no longer true.)

Unisys needs help, not flames

In the past, Unisys has been about as friendly toward Linux and open source as its longtime business ally, Microsoft. If there was a "Linux, Incorporated," surely CEO L. Torvalds would be all over the pages of the Wall Street Journal and other financial publications touting the new Unisys willingness to work with the Linux and open source communities as a "major win" and "evidence that the Linux tide will inevitably sweep away all obstacles in its path." The phrase "world domination" might even be used.

But there is no "Linux, Incorporated," so the best we're likely to see is a press release from OSDL about Unisys joining. And we shouldn't sell that short, nor should we be as nasty toward Unisys as Unisys has been toward open source and free software developers in the past. Instead, we need to encourage Unisys to move further into the open source camp.

It's obvious that Unisys, like many old-line computer companies, is in the habit of considering software as a patentable product that should either be sold for profit or used as a (proprietary) incentive to buy that company's other (proprietary) products. But when we say "Unisys," we are not talking about a monolith, but about a group of people who may not always agree with each other. I have met Unisys employees who are hardcore Linux advocates and use Linux at home. And, no doubt, there are others who love Windows more than life itself and regard all that free software stuff as commie claptrap. The trick is to encourage those Unisys employees who are on the Linux side of the fence to keep persuading their recalcitrant fellows, not to damn all of Unisys so that upper management turns off the little trickle of Linux awareness that seems to have started within the company before it can spread and become a flood of Linux and open source support similar to the ones that are now moving through HP, IBM, and Sun.

We must be as polite as possible to all Unisys employees, no matter what they say for public consumption. For all we know, Anthony Gold is a major GNU booster when he doesn't have a PR person monitoring his conversations. And maybe he uses Linux on his own computer and ducked my "Which Linux distribution do you use personally?" question because he runs Debian and didn't want to upset Unisys Linux partners Red Hat and Novell, not because he runs Windows (or FreeBSD or Mac OS X or BeOS) and didn't want to admit that he wasn't a Linux user at all.

I asked both Gold and the PR rep to put me in contact with customers who are running Linux on Unisys ES7000 servers. The ability to run up to 32 CPUs across multiple partitions, and to mix Windows and Linux across partitions and CPUs, means that the ES7000 might be able to do things the competition's hardware can't -- and will therefore help move Linux into enterprise settings where it otherwise might never penetrate.

That is the kind of Linux story I really like to write. And I also hope to cover many important open source code releases by Unisys, because those are also good, positive stories -- especially when those code releases help all Linux users, not just Unisys customers.

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